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The temperature peaked at a frigid 11 degrees outside the Alliant Energy Center in Madison last Friday but inside the big Exhibition Hall flowers were blooming and gardeners were working up a sweat getting ready to turn soil.

And, the ambitious flower and landscaping enthusiasts will soon be "starting" seeds in their mini greenhouses or pots, and they can't wait to get going.

That's why the 26th annual Wisconsin Public Television Garden Expo drew some 16,000 true-blue, beginning and want-to-be gardeners to the place where they could listen to experts, look at exotic tools, marvel at the landscaping possibilities and create wish lists.

A buying event

Even better, visitors could buy to their heart's content from the near 300 exhibitors offering everything from bee supplies to seeds and plants to memberships in a dozen or so plant and environmental organizations.

Not being much of a gardener I wandered the vast expanse of booths looking at the new and unusual (to me) displays and demonstrations on exhibit. 

Just inside the main entrance (as usual) the big “America’s Best” greenhouse display greeted visitors with flowers, plants and garden supplies. Sadly, the owner of the huge greenhouse complex located near Cottage Grove, Ed Knapton,was missing. A bad sign indeed as I knew Ed was trying to make his way through a serious and so-far long term bout with cancer. Note - I called Ed on Monday and he said he’d spent about an hour setting up the show but then went home to rest.   

Also, a listening event

In addition to the hundreds of commercial and educational displays, a continuous schedule of demonstrations, workshops and seminars were being presented at the various stages.  

The demonstration schedule began at 12:30 Friday with “Sensational Succulents” and “Building  an April Greenhouse for Under $100 That Heats Itself “

and ended at 2:30 on Saturday with “Simple Ways to Grow Mushrooms at Home“  and “Using Green Infrastructure: A Cost Effective, Resilient  Approach to Managing Wet Weather Impacts.”  These are probably not earth shaking science but projects gardeners can easily do themselves while waiting for the planting season to make its appearance.  (Note - some workshops had a fee attached.)

Then there were hour-long seminars that ran throughout the three days and ranged from the practical “Houseplant Survival Guide” to the more exotic “Bringing Fire Into Your Garden” and subjects aimed at educating the gardner of every ilk. 

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Exhibits to visit

I’m always curious about the commercial exhibits — the variety and ingenuity behind them is interesting and intriguing like these:

The Mosquito Squad - a new company to the area but not to the US - offers mosquito and tick control to homeowners and businesses. The company, with seven locations in Wisconsin says their treatment programs eliminate 90 percent of your mosquitos for 14 - 21 days. Mosquitos are a real bother for many folks (they don’t bite me) and this may offer a solution — get information at mosquito squad.com.    

Agrecol. the Cooksville based company founded in 1991 by the “one and only” Bill Graham, is noted for its high quality seeds and plants (250 species) and erosion control systems. The company says “all our seed is independently tested for purity and germination. We pledge to protect and enhance and create native plant communities that provide perennial biodiversity while protecting the environment. Their catalog is a wonder of information - call 608-223-3571 or go to agrecol.com. 

The best tool

Noel Valdes, who owns “CobraHead LLC at Cambridge offers a limited number of garden tools, among them the original CobraHead Weeder and Cultivator that he calls “the best tool in earth. Its blade is a ‘steel fingernail’ that becomes an extension of your hand.”

The company also offers the CobraHead Broadfork that is a traditional European design that has six tines, 9 inches long and a 48 inch handle. This tool will move a lot of soil if you work at it. Info at cobrahead.com.  

The Patz Maple and Honey Farms booth was a busy place with lots of both maple syrup and honey products for sale. My curiosity was immediate as I certainly knew about Patz Manufacturing and their history of inventing the key chain that had made barn cleaners so successful.

Barn cleaners, then maple syrup

“”My husband and I started this business years ago. I’m Nancy Patz and my husband Clifford was the president of the Patz company for many years.”  

"My husband said that he spent much of his time inside in an office and needed to get out into fresh air and nature so as a hobby, we started tapping a few maple trees," Nancy says. “We cooked it down in a pan in our backyard we finished it off in our kitchen but the steam peeled off the wall paper. So. we added a state-approved stainless steel kitchen and now process sap from over 15,000 trees.   

"As our four children and five grandchildren got more involved Clifford decided we needed another natural product to go with the maple syrup," she continues.  "So after a lot of research and learning we brought in 10 bee hives, now we have 350 beehives. 

"We then decided to go on the road to shows like this and offer our natural  products to the public. “And over the 15 years we’ve met so many wonderful people which we enjoy seeing year after year.”  

For details call 800-897-2488 or go to patz maple and honey.com.

Yes. I'll admit to feeling a bit guilty as a non-gardener among the crowd of "eager beaver, can't wait to get at it, what's new, oh, look at that, let's get one" crowd. The Garden Expo - sponsored by Wisconsin Public TV, Wisconsin Cooperative Extension and the Wisconsin Nursery and Landscape Association is a super event and offers an answer for every question, a tool for every need, a seminar for every subject and a great way to get into a springtime mood.    

It’s about growing, harvesting and raising food. That’s life!

John F. Oncken owns Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at jfodairy@chorus.net.

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